The world most revered Shia cleric, born in Iran in 1930, is as influential in Iraq than in the UK. His website held by a team of Shia IT specialists, receives hundreds of online advice requests every day. Considering that the UK counts thousands of his followers among its citizens and he unleashes crowds in Iraq, Ayatollah al-Sistani is, more than a cleric, an institution.
Other ‘instagirls’ and ‘instaboys’ may be green with envy: Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gathers 27.9K followers on his Persian Instagram. Because his charisma spreads widely among the Shia worldwide diaspora and Shia Iraqis, Sistani’s network, enshrined in the UK through the Imam Ali Foundation, is among the richest religious Shia seminary in the world. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani gathers followers from Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere in the West.
Since he shifted from aloofness to centre-stage with his political fatwa in June 2003, he became increasingly proactive. He pushed for democracy and militated against ethno-sectarian policies imposed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) involved in Iraq since 2003. He stood against the foreign invasion and the coalition’s implementation of the TAL (Transitional Administrative Law). Although, in 2003 al-Sistani was snubbed by the US-led coalition, he forced Paul Bremer to negotiate a deal to ensure a legitimate transition, arguing for Iraqi people to be sovereign and the only ruler of their own condition.
To some extent media outlets worldwide have portrayed him as a religious dictator who seeks to spread his power across the Levantine Peninsula. However, the sectarian narrative, best illustrated by King Abdallah II of Jordan who described it as “the Shia Crescent”, is an obstacle to the understanding of Sistani’s input. Sistani’s involvement on the Iraqi political stage did not aim to bolster sectarian hatred. In fact, quite the opposite, his public statements were supposed to give a sense of national unity against the usurpation of power. It started first with the coalition, and ended with the self-serving ruling elite, namely Nuri al-Maliki, against which Sistani stood to defend the implementation of a civil state.
With the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014, Sistani issued a call to arms on national TV for men to mobilise and defend their nations. Although he gathered a clear majority of Shia fighters, some Sunnis also answered his call. As Sistani’s agency is spread worldwide, he had to praise for British Muslims to stay home and leave Iraqis fighting for their own cause.
The Kurdish secessionist impulse, coupled with the fight against ISIS, as well as the awaited outcome of the Syrian conflict, leave Iraq as a fragmented and desolated country. However, if Theresa May is willing to promote UK’s security and stability agenda in the Middle Est, she should reconsider her approach to religion without a sectarian reading grid of the Middle East.
Sistani is among the only buffers against – and potentially, among the only real option – to stop the spread of sectarian violence. However, Sistani’s quietist approach to politics, and his defence of self-determination, lead him to remain silent despite the outbreak of the recent events in Iraq. But we had better keep a close eye on the situation, or follow his Instagram account.
Valentine Debonneville is currently works for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization on human rights issues and minorities rights.